Slender-billed curlew

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Slender-billed curlew
Naturalis Biodiversity Center - ZMA.AVES.1670 - Numenius tenuirostris Vieillot, 1817 - Scolopacidae - skin specimen.jpeg
Taxidermied specimen, Naturalis
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Scolopacidae
Genus: Numenius
N. tenuirostris
Binomial name
Numenius tenuirostris
Vieillot, 1817
Range of N. tenuirostris
  Probably extinct

The slender-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris) is a bird in the wader family Scolopacidae. Isotope analysis suggests the majority of the former population bred in the Kazakh Steppe despite a record from the Siberian swamps, and was migratory, formerly wintering in shallow freshwater habitats around the Mediterranean. This species has occurred as a vagrant in western Europe, the Canary Islands, the Azores, Oman, Canada and Japan.


Illustration by Henrik Grönvold

The slender-billed curlew is a small curlew, 36–41 cm in length with a 77–88 cm wingspan. It is therefore about the same size as a Eurasian whimbrel, but it is more like the Eurasian curlew in plumage. The breeding adult is mainly greyish brown above, with a whitish rump and lower back. The underparts are whitish, heavily streaked with dark brown. The flanks have round or heart-shaped spots. The non-breeding plumage is similar, but with fewer flank spots. Male and female are alike in plumage, but females are longer-billed than males, an adaptation in curlew species that eliminates direct competition for food between the sexes. The juvenile plumage is very similar to the adult, but the flank are marked with brown streaking, the heart-shaped spots only appearing toward the end of the first winter.

Compared to the Eurasian curlew, the slender-billed curlew is whiter on the breast, tail, and underwing, and the bill is shorter, more slender, and slightly straighter at the base. The arrowhead-shaped flank spots of the Eurasian curlew also are different from the round or heart-shaped spots of the slender-billed. The head pattern, with a dark cap and whitish supercilium, recalls that of the whimbrel, but that species also has a central crown stripe and a more clearly marked pattern overall; the pattern of the slender-billed curlew would be hard to make out in the field.

This species shows more white than other curlews, and the white underwings, along with the distinctive flank markings, are key identification criteria.


The call is a cour-lee, similar to that of the Eurasian curlew, but higher-pitched, more melodic, and shorter. The alarm call is a fast cu-ee.


Slender-billed curlew (centre) between Eurasian whimbrels

Little is known about the breeding biology, but on average the few nests observed had four eggs.

Slender-billed curlews feed by using their bills to probe soft mud for small invertebrates, but will also pick other small items off the surface if the opportunity arises. It used to be highly gregarious outside the breeding season, associating with related species, particularly Eurasian curlews.



After a long period of steady decline, the slender-billed curlew is extremely rare, with only a minute and still declining population. This is thought to be fewer than 50 adult birds, with the last verified sighting in 2004. As a result, it is now listed as critically endangered.

The primary cause of the decline is thought to be excessive hunting on the Mediterranean wintering grounds. Habitat loss, particularly in the wintering grounds, may also have played a part, but huge areas of forest bogs suitable for breeding still exist in Siberia. It is unknown to what extent the birds still reproduce successfully, and how much gene flow still exists in what may once have been a large and widely dispersed population undergoing little purging of deleterious recessive alleles and consequently with a high MVP. Furthermore, there is evidence that birds in winter quarters were more numerous once, and in general not a very rare sight in Western Europe in the nineteenth century, where they were hunted with some regularity. Later on they were additionally threatened by pollution, e.g. oil spills. There are no data about how these threats endanger the species today. Theoretically, they might have retreated to all but inaccessible areas, but then, a single hunter or fox might unwittingly wipe out enough of the few remaining birds to doom the species.

The last well-documented nest was found in 1924, near Tara in Omsk oblast, Siberia (57°N 74°E / 57°N 74°E / 57; 74).[2] Its nesting grounds since then remain unknown, despite several intensive searches (not surprising, with more than 100,000 square kilometres to search). The extent of its decline also is reflected in the absence of wintering birds at previously regular Moroccan sites.

More recently, 20 birds were recorded in Italy in 1995. There was a potential record of an immature (one year old) at Druridge Pools in Northumberland, England, on 4–7 May 1998, for details of which see the Druridge Bay curlew. The bird was initially accepted onto the British List[3] but was removed in 2013 following a review of the identification.[4]

Slender-billed curlews have been reported in various Western Palearctic locations on a number of occasions since the Druridge bird, including claimed, but unverified, sightings of single birds from Italy and Greece; none have been documented with conclusive photographs and at least one claimed bird, at RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk, England, in 2004, is now widely believed to have been a Eurasian curlew.

Illustration from ca 1830

Further sourced reports of the species were published in 2007, in British Birds magazine;[5] the article stated, quoting from Zhmud:[6]

During the last few years, small groups of birds have been found in the northern coastal areas [of the Danube Delta], frequenting low-lying islands, bays, and sand-spits covered with Common Glasswort Salicornia europaea [...] Four birds were present from 25th July to 21st August 2003, six were seen on 11th August 2004, and another on 12th August 2004.

A sighting of a single bird was reported from Albania in 2006 by a team including ornithologists from the environmental organization EuroNatur.

Thus, although hard proof is lacking, but given the extent of possible habitat and the precautionary principle, it is believed to be extant for the time being. Apparently at least the wintering range has starkly contracted; it appears that the handful of family or neighbour groups that are left retreat to remote habitat in southeastern Europe in winter. The IUCN classifies it as Critically Endangered (CR) C2a(ii); D. This means that an estimated 50 mature birds or fewer are believed to exist, with numbers declining, and that there probably is only one subpopulation.


General references[edit]

  • Hayman, Peter; Marchant, John & Prater, Tony (1986): Shorebirds: an identification guide to the waders of the world. Houghton Mifflin, Boston. ISBN 0-395-60237-8
  • Svensson, Lars; Zetterström, Dan; Mullarney, Killian & Grant, P. J. (1999): Collins bird guide. Harper & Collins, London. ISBN 0-00-219728-6
  • Corso, Andrea; Jansen, Justin; Kokay, Szabolcs (2014). A review of the identification criteria and variability of the Slender-billed Curlew. "British Birds" 107: 339–370.


  • Identification of Slender-billed Curlew, John Marchant, British Birds 77: 135–140.
  • Slender-billed Curlew studies, Richard Porter, British Birds 77: 581–586.
  • Habitat of Slender-billed Curlews in Morocco, Arnoud van den Berg, British Birds 83: 1–7.
  • Slender-billed Curlew in Tunisia in Feb 1984, Eddy Wijmengs & Klaas van Dijk, Dutch Birding 7: 67–68.
  • Slender-billed Curlews in Morocco in Feb 1979, Peter Ewins, Dutch Birding 11: 119–120.
  • Identification of Slender-billed Curlew and its occurrence in Morocco in winter 1987/88, Arnoud van den Berg, Dutch Birding 10: 45–53.
  • Slender-billed Curlew on Sicily in March 1996, Andrea Corso, Dutch Birding 18: 302.
  • Slender-billed Curlew collected at Canis-vliet in September 1896, Gunter De Smet, Dutch Birding 19: 230–232.
  • The identification of the Slender-billed Curlew, British Birds Vol 56 No8 1963
  • Kirwan, Guy; Porter, Richard; Scott, Derek (2015). Chronicle of an extinction? A review of Slender-billed Curlew records in the Middle East. "British Birds" 108: 669–682.

Specific references[edit]

  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Numenius tenuirostris". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2012. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
  2. ^ Gretton, Adam; Yurlov, Alexander K. & Boere, Gerard C. (2002): Where does the Slender-billed Curlew nest, and what future does it have? British Birds 95(7): 334–344 ISSN 0007-0335 HTML abstract
  3. ^ Cleeves, Tim (2002): Slender-billed Curlew in Northumberland: new to Britain and Ireland. British Birds 95(6): 272–299 (2002) ISSN 0007-0335 HTML abstract
  4. ^ BOU (2013). "Changes to the British List". Retrieved 5 December 2013.
  5. ^ Goriup, Paul; Baboianu, Grigore & Chernichko, Joseph (2007): The Danube Delta: Europe's remarkable wetland British Birds 100: 194–213 ISSN 0007-0335
  6. ^ Zhmud, M. 2005: Slender-billed Curlew: promising discovery in the Danube delta Wader Study Group Bull. 106: 51–54

External links[edit]